Mere days after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect from last week’s Boston Marathon bombing, corporate television networks—ABC News, CNN, Fox, etc—are flooded with terrorism “experts” offering a variety of theories about the motivations of the suspects, the nature of the weapons they allegedly used, and their religious background. While former FBI official Brad Garret described the younger Tsarnaev as a confused individual with a “limited spread of friends” who maintained a “balance” between his “good side” and his “Islamic side”, CNN’s Erin Burnett suggested that the definition of “enemy combatant” be expanded beyond the State Department’s definition of anyone who aided in the attacks on September 11th 2001.
Both of these responses, and a host of others, demonstrate just how shallow our understanding is of terrorism, not only in the legal and historical sense but also economically. This explains why throughout the 24/7 coverage of the Boston bombing, the manhunt, and the dramatic capture not one economist was invited on any of these media programs. Loretta Napoleoni’s Terror Incorporated is vital to creating such a discourse.
Meticulously detailed and rigorously argued, Napoleoni traces the evolution of what she calls the New Economy of Terror, an $1.5 trillion international network of money laundering, drug smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and petty crime managed through sophisticated interactions between legal and illegal economies. Beginning as state-sponsored organizations funded by the major superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) these sub-state groups eventually “privatized” thanks to the substantial support provided by the financial structures of neoliberal globalization. In this respect, Napoleoni’s work is groundbreaking.
Unencumbered by simplistic explanations that attribute terrorism to religious zeal, she outlines, in precise detail, the global economic forces that lie behind retail terrorism. For example, she notes how the US funded the AUC, a state-backed Colombian paramilitary organization, and guarded the interests of “wealthy landowners” and “drug cartel barons”. The brutality of the AUC was put on full display in the 1997 El Aro massacre which is described in graphic terms:
“The army encircled the village, preventing anyone from escaping, and the AUC proceeded to exterminate the population. A shopkeeper was tied to a tree and brutally tortured before being castrated: his eyes were gouged out and his tongue severed with a knife. Eleven people, among them three children, were beheaded; all public buildings were set on fire, houses looted and water supply destroyed.”
For doctrinal reasons, the media did not investigate if there was a “foreign connection” behind this terrorist attack. Neither were investigations launched in 1999 when Washington “granted a $1.6 billion aid package” to Colombia “for the following three years”. This is to be contrasted with the repeated investigations, years later, into Hugo Chavez’s alleged material support for the FARC, an organization that has uncontroversially engaged in criminal activity, but not afforded the same license to kill by the western journalistic community because they did so in defiance of their northern masters. Incidentally, it wasn’t until 2001, four years after the El Aro massacre, that the AUC was placed on the State Department’s “terrorist list”, joining another friend who had fallen out of favor in Saddam Hussein.
In a departure from conventional wisdom, which views the fall of the Berlin Wall as the collapse of “communism” and the triumph of “capitalism”, Napoleoni observed in the fall of the Soviet Union the birth of a “transnational conglomerate of organisms”, all of which were largely self-sustaining and governed on a corporate model. Osama Bin Laden was perhaps the archetype of this latest development in the realm of retail terror. Napoleoni described Bin Laden as an international financier who maintained “the ideal capitalist portfolio”. Bin Laden’s “funds [were] placed in several banks across the world, ranging from the sultanate of Brunei to European countries,” and “in 1998, through a contact at the Arab Banking Corporation, bin Laden speculated in the French stock market in shares, including stocks from BNP and Societe Generale, netting $20 million profit.” Perhaps, if Bin Laden was a Wall Street executive funding wholesale terror instead of a bearded Saudi funding retail terror he would’ve gotten a minor fine for his crimes instead of being extrajudicially murdered by an elite team of Navy SEALS.
The probability that US financial elites are involved in this New Economy of Terror is so high that if a serious criminal investigation were launched it would probably bring down the entire economy. Statistics affirm this prediction as well. Writing on the “Macroeconomics of Terror” Napoleoni states “on a global scale billions of dollars generated by narcotics are laundered in the United States; between 30 and 40 percent enter the US economy”. Raymond Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington estimates “out of $1 trillion every year about $200 billion are ‘washed’ by Western money-laundering institutions and enter the world money supply as ‘clean money’”. Together, this analysis illustrates how “most of the money generated by violent criminal activity is recycled in the West, particularly in the US”. It also illustrates what Napoleoni calls the “sad fact” that “American banks, under the umbrella of American laws and policies, will accept money from overseas even if they suspect that it has been illegally detained.” The only national player, outside the US (and the European Union), which plays a decisive role in this international criminal operation is Saudi Arabia which covertly finances numerous armed insurgencies throughout the world from the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to the separatist rebels in Chechnya.
At the heart of Napoleoni’s study is a dedication to uncovering the real substance of terrorism as not only a “the unlawful use of violence”, as the US Code describes it, but a highly institutionalized system of structural violence that we interact with in our daily lives, a system that cannot be explained away through propagandistic terms like “enemy combatant” or “Islamic terrorism”. It is this need to think in more complex terms which plausibly compelled Napoleoni to warn “as long as we allow anyone to walk into a bank in Florida with a suitcase and deposit it without being questioned as to its origin . . . and as long as we invest in corporations which meddle in the politics of independent states and take profit without regard to human cost, we engage in our own destruction.” Admittedly, this warning most likely will not inspire the same blaring headlines as a Boston-based “terrorist” slaughtering Americans out of some mysterious urge to give expression to his “Islamic side” but if the events of the last decade are of any importance it surely deserves some.